Saturday, February 4, 2012

LA Times Interview With Dad (1987)

100 Years of a Living Legend : C. D. B. Bryan Records Growth and History of National Geographic, the Society and the Magazine

November 04, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — C. D. B. Bryan, a successful writer of both fiction and nonfiction, had not read the familiar yellow-bordered magazine for 20 years when he agreed two years ago to write a book on the National Geographic Society's 100-year anniversary.

Bryan had, of course, read the National Geographic magazine "as a kid. It was the kind of magazine your grandparents gave you."

Considering the source of the gift, it contained an unbelievable bonus for a young male mind: those pictures of bare-breasted native women.

Trademark Photographs

"It's their trademark," said the 51-year-old Bryan, who is best known for his Vietnam drama "Friendly Fire," about a soldier accidentally killed by his own forces. "Generations of schoolboys have grown up with this pre-Playboy."

In the 1950s and '60s, the Geographic became "bloody boring" in Bryan's estimation. Increasingly in the latter decade, protesting the war in Vietnam began occupying his time, so, bare-breasted women or not, he stopped reading it.

"I would read it when I went to the dentist, like everybody else," he added.

Nonetheless, Bryan agreed to write the book for the Harry N. Abrams publishing company, having already authored a commercially successful book for Abrams on the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Writing about the Geographic would, among other things, give him a financial base to work on a "Friendly Fire"-style account of a real family coping with a teen-age suicide, a book he is still working on.

To Bryan's surprise, not only was "The National Geographic Society, 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery" a lot more work than he had envisioned--two years of interviewing staffers and plumbing through files--but it has already become much more successful than he thought it would. It was released last week with a first printing of 750,000, it was chosen a Literary Guild selection and there are plans for translations and sales in foreign countries.

"None of us in our wildest moments thought it would do this well," Bryan said.

What apparently has proven irresistible is the 473-page collection of dramatic stories and photos of earthquakes, undersea and polar expeditions, volcano eruptions, microscopic cells and the peoples, vegetation and wildlife of foreign lands.

Not Always Flattering

The book also contains Bryan's unauthorized account of the history of the National Geographic Society, which is not always flattering to the main figures: Alexander Graham Bell, who was president of the society in 1898, and three generations of the Grosvenor family who followed him.

"Like every organization, it's filled with fiefdoms and riven with jealousies," said Bryan, who said he admired the society's "courage" in hiring an outsider to write its history. The society, which has had its headquarters here since its founding in January of 1888, gave Bryan complete access to its massive files, and Bryan spent months submerged in them.

Hearing the adventures of the explorers, photographers and writers was an adventure in itself for Bryan, a tall, pencil-thin, academic-looking man with glasses, who does much of his writing in a Guilford, Conn., cottage on Podunk Road.

"I loved 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' so I had sort of a vision of people trooping into the office covered with seaweed, dressed in safari jackets and snake-proof boots," he said. "But in fact they dress rather like members of the Metropolitan Club, in suits and ties for God's sake, very old-fashioned and very gentlemanly and probably more WASP than you would think they might necessarily be."

Despite their Washington-issue apparel, staffers were able to delight Bryan with, as he wrote in the book's introduction, "tales of bandit raids and angry mobs, of walking away from airplane and helicopter crashes, of being flung from boats into icy rapids, of having cameras bitten by crocodiles or retrieved only through tugs-of-war with venomous sea snakes, of surviving shark bites, capricious imprisonments and mysterious fevers."

"Where else but at the society would one learn of free-lance photographer Alan Root, who, while on assignment in Mzima Springs, Kenya, in 1974, was attacked by a bull hippopotamus? 'The next thing I knew,' Root said, 'he had my right leg in his mouth. The hippo then shook me like a rat.' After skin grafts, treatment for gangrene and a month's convalescence in a Nairobi hospital, Root recovered."

The society liked the book enough to give each magazine staff member one as a present and offer a cut-rate edition to its 10.5 million membership, but Bryan said there were disagreements about what went into the book.

"There were things they would rather not have seen in the book, discussions of the racial prejudice of one of the editors, a discussion of their rose-colored-glasses reporting, the confrontation between the very conservative members of the board of trustees and the less conservative and younger editors, and the palace revolution (as it came to be called) in the illustrations department, where they got fed up with funny little issues jam-filled with tiny little pictures."

Current society president and board chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor, a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, said of the book: "While none of us may be comfortable with everything he says, this volume is the most objective, credible, frank and honest history of the society ever written."

Before the invention of television, the Geographic "was our window on how the rest of the world is," Bryan said. "It was a real public service. It was exciting."

Magazine Milestone

One milestone occurred in the November, 1896, issue, which contained the first photograph of bare-breasted natives to appear in the magazine. They were called "Zulu Bride and Groom," and the article that accompanied the photo stated: "These people are of a dark bronze hue, and have good athletic figures." Another of the most famous Geographic adventure stories of the pre-television era was Comdr. Robert E. Peary's tale of becoming the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, an expedition partly funded by the Society.

After television began to show the world to itself, the magazine's primary contribution to American culture quickly became the development of color photography, Bryan feels.

"Nobody does it better," Bryan said. "Nobody has poured the amount of money and had the amount of money to pour into experimenting with different kinds of cameras and lenses and lighting equipment."

The magazine's circulation, which doubles as the society membership, went over the 1 million mark in 1930, then dipped during the Depression and rebounded over the million mark again in 1940. In its largest growth period, the circulation rose from 2.5 million in 1960 to 6.9 million in 1970. It hit its peak of 10.7 million in 1980 and has since levelled off to 10.5 million.

Who reads the Geographic?

As Bryan points out: "There can't be 11 million dentists in this country."

Trying to figure out exactly who did read the Geographic, a survey was taken in 1943 and, as Bryan reports in the book, among the 1,199,738 "loyal members" were: 39,543 housewives; 36,816 farmers; 11,715 dentists and dental surgeons; 13,710 executives; 32,589 clerks; 1,557 barbers; 3,000 undertakers; 39 bartenders; 228 politicians; 261 college matrons; 156 masseurs; 114 members of royalty; 15 poets and 3 tropical fish-raisers.

No More 'Rose-Colored Glasses'

The major journalistic criticism of the Geographic over the years, according to Bryan, has been its "rose-colored glasses" reporting, especially of major wars. This stemmed from staffers having to obey the guiding principles of editor Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, who decreed, among other things that:

"Nothing of a partisan or controversial nature is printed.

"Only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided."

Bryan said one reason for this philosophy was the Geographic's need to stay in the good favor with countries so that staff members (numbering 200) could return. But the modern Geographic, said one staff member, has had the rose glasses off for "10 years," pointing to articles in the March issue on South Dakota's faltering farm economy, in the April issue on global pollution and the May issue on Chernobyl. There also have been memorable photographs of starving African children and Afghan fighters.

The world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational institution, the society has a number of endeavors beside the famous magazine and television specials. It has sponsored more than 3,200 scientific research projects and expeditions, publishes three other magazines, makes maps and classroom teaching aids and has a program to upgrade the teaching of geography in American secondary schools.

"I knew it could not help but be fun to do a book on the National Geographic," Bryan said. "Whether or not it would be worth two years of your life, I didn't know.

"And the answer is, yes, it was worth it."

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